Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Stormy Weather Often Brings Rare Birds
June 09, 2012

By Steve Grinley

     The stormy weather this past week or two has brought some interesting birding to the coast. The northeast winds have blown in many seabirds closer to land. Sea watching has been interesting, that is, if you could find a sheltered spot and tolerate the windy and rainy conditions. From Salisbury we could see hundreds of terns feeding near the mouth of the Merrimack River last weekend. We saw many roseate terns among the common terns, and there were possibly arctic and Forster’s terns with them as well. Last Sunday I was able to see at least two black terns flying along the north jetty on Plum Island as I scoped from the Salisbury side of the river.

     On separate occasions there were a couple of Manx shearwaters and, later, a pair of sooty shearwaters moving through the flocks of terns. Further out, gannets were plunge diving in the rough seas. It was always a challenge to keep the optics dry as we looked into the mist and rain while trying view these birds.

     A few birds were driven onto land, including one sooty tern found along the beach at Sandy Point on Plum Island. It was still alive when it was found and it was even able to fly a short way out into the water. It was probably so exhausted, it probably didn’t survive. A few healthy arctic terns and a Forster’s tern were seen on Sandy Point by a few individuals who braved being sand-blasted as they made their way out to the point. Despite the horrid conditions, they were even able to get a few photos.

     Margo and I went out there during more favorable conditions and, in addition to a marbled godwit and a couple of red knots, we did see two very cute baby chick piping plovers who were constantly being sheltered underneath the parent for protection from the elements. A few days later, I heard that the waves went over the spit where the plovers were nesting, so I hope that these little birds survived. During the very high tides, waves battered the beach all along Plum Island right up to the dunes. Any plovers or terns that were nesting along the beach will likely have to start over.

     The winds also blew in a little gull and a pair of Caspian terns onto the Parker River Refuge. The little gull was seen at Sandy Point and again at the Bill Forward Pool over the course of a couple of days. Caspian terns are large terns the size of our ring-billed gulls, and have large red-orange bills. These birds spent much of their time at Bill Forward Pool, sometimes posing on the small mud flat island in the center of the pool, other times fishing over the water.

     The rarest appearance of the storm was made by a brown pelican that appeared in Lobster Cove in Gloucester. It happened to be in the “backyard” of a birder, Jim Barber, who noticed the pelican swimming in the water near Annisquam this past Tuesday. He was able to get the word out and a few birders rushed over to try to see the bird. By the time anyone else got there, however, it had flown.

     One of those birders, Chris Floyd, decided to go to the Jodrey State Fish Pier in Gloucester Harbor to look for the pelican and anything else that might have “blown in.” There he found the pelican swimming thirty yards off the pier! Chris called me around 3 pm and I got the word out by posting the sighting to the Massbird listserve and making a few phone calls. Meanwhile another birder, Bob Stymeist, had arrived and seen the bird and also called me.

     I was hoping to run over to Gloucester after work to see the pelican. But as it turned out, only a few additional birders got to see the bird. Around 4 pm, the bird took flight and flew out into the harbor, being harassed by the local great black-backed gulls. It eventually gained altitude, left the menacing gulls behind, and headed south. Subsequent searched at Eastern Point and other areas that afternoon were unsuccessful at refinding the bird.

     The brown pelican would have been a “state bird” for me, never having seen one before in Massachusetts. This isn’t the first rare bird that birders have called into me and that I have helped put the word out for, only to not see the bird myself. And it won’t be the last.

     Dr. David Deifik of Nashua was one of the birders I called when I received the pelican update around 3 pm. He then headed to Gloucester, from Nashua, to try to see the bird. He was just rounding the traffic circle at Route 128 in Gloucester when the bird had taken flight, so he missed it by only a few minutes. I spoke to him after that and he rationalized that day’s “miss” by saying how lucky he was during the last hurricane to have chased and DID see a sooty tern and a white-tailed tropicbird – two very rare birds Massachusetts. So he rationalized that good fortune is expected to offset several significant “misses” when chasing rare birds. Since I saw no such rarities during that hurricane, I am not sure I can share his casual dismissal for not seeing the bird.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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